The Abusir boat.

Unique Discovery Made in Egyptian Necropolis: Archaeologists Uncover a 4,500-Year-Old Funerary Boat Alongside Tomb of Unknown Elite, Who Was Not part of the Royal Family


Czech archaeologists have unearthed an 18 meter (59.1 ft.) long boat near a tomb of an unknown member of the Old Kingdom’s elite class in Abusir (Abu-Sir), Egypt. The boat was found in a good state of preservation and there are hopes that the new discovery will help to increase Egyptologists’ understanding of the purpose of ships in funerary rites and shipbuilding techniques of the Old Kingdom.

The archaeologists are from the Czech Institute of Egyptology, Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, and have said that the boat is unique and in good condition - many of the boards and pegs have even been found in their original positions. The report on the iFORUM site of Charles University explains that:

“Extraordinarily, the desert sand has preserved the plant fiber battens which covered the planking seams. Some of the ropes that bound the boat together are also still in their original position with all their details intact, which is a unique discovery in the study of ancient Egyptian boats. All these minute details are of the highest importance, since most of the ancient Egyptian boats and ships have survived either in poor state of preservation, or were dismantled in pieces.”

The Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities told the press that the remains of the ship were found on top of stones, and its orientation, length, and the pottery collected from its interior have led the team to date the boat to the very end of the Third or beginning of the Fourth Dynasty, approximately 2550 BC.

Work at the Abusir Old Kingdom necropolis site, where Czech archaeologists discovered an ancient funerary boat. (Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities)

At the moment, the archaeologists remain uncertain to whom the ship pertained, but they have made the assumption that it was a member of the elite class. They do not believe it was a part of the royal family however: “Although the name of the mastaba owner has not yet been identified due to the bad preservation condition of the shrine, the boat wreck shows that he was a very important man in the royal palace - a top official or a close person to the king but not a royal family,” Minister of Antiquities, Mamdouh Eldamaty, told Ahram Online.

Eldamaty also “described the discovery as “important” because it is the first time that such a boat has been found at Saqqara necropolis.” He added that “Most of the previously uncovered Old Kingdom boats are in a very bad preservation condition except those of King Khufu.”

The reconstructed Khufu ship. Giza, Egypt.

The reconstructed Khufu ship. Giza, Egypt. (CC BY SA 3.0)

The practice of burying boats near mastabas began in the Early Dynastic Period. However, as Czech Egyptology Institute head Miroslav Barta notes, the Abusir boat is a very special discovery because it was not found beside a royal tomb.

He told the press, “It is really a very unusual find since vessels of this size and structure were designated only for the most significant members of society then, which were those from the royal family.”

Although they are less popular than the Khufu ships, another example of important ancient Egyptian watercraft is the Abydos boats. These consist of 14 vessels that were discovered in 2000, which are believed to have been built around 3000 BC. The Abydos boats are the oldest of their kind found to date.

Some of the Abydos boats in their brick-built graves.

Some of the Abydos boats in their brick-built graves. (Maritimehistorypodcast.com)

The boat in Abusir was found in the south cemetery of mastaba AS 54. Czech archaeologists have been working at the Abusir site since 2009. They believe that the boat was probably used in ancient Egyptian funerary rituals. However, the purpose of the boats as funerary vessels remains a point of debate. The question is, how did they serve the dead in their afterlives – as a means of transport? Or, perhaps, they were associated with Ra’s voyage in his solar ship.

The Abusir necropolis

The Abusir necropolis. (Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities)

Apart from the role of ships in funerary rituals, the team believes that the good preservation of the boat will be helpful in understanding more about shipbuilding practices in the Old Kingdom. Barta is also hopeful that the boat discovery will lead the way for more findings. “This suggests the potential for additional discoveries during the next spring season,” he said in the Charles University report.

Charles University also reports that “During the 2016 season, the Czech Institute of Egyptology will launch a project, together with experts from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) at Texas A&M University, to study the techniques used in the hull’s construction.”

Featured Image: The Abusir boat.  Source: Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities

By: Alicia McDermott

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